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Milo Yiannopoulos recently resigned from Breitbart amid controversial comments about that a relationship between an adult male and a teenager could be beneficial. Without wishing to imply a defence of his claims, what I wanted to ask is -- didn't Socrates make essentially the same claim 2500 years ago in the Symposium, and what has changed between now and then to make the idea less intellectually respectable?

A lot that Milo Yiannopoulos said about sex calls the Symposium to mind, and for all I know was intended to. He distinguished between relations involving pre-pubescent children and those involving teenagers past the age of puberty, and the latter type certainly existed in Plato’s time. Moreover the relationships discussed in the Symposium take place, with very few exceptions, between males.

But let’s subdivide your two questions into three. 1) Did Socrates claim that adult/teenager relationships could be beneficial? (You don’t specify to whom they would be beneficial, but I assume you mean “to the teenager.”) 2) Were relationships of this kind considered normal in Socrates’ time? 3) What has changed since then?

It’s worth adding question (2) because Plato presents Socrates attempting to give a philosophical interpretation and clarification of existing practices. What he says makes fuller sense if we recognize what was being done in that time and place. Thus it’s not that Socrates saw people around him engaging in relationships exclusively among adults and proposed that they seek teenage partners.

What was actually done in antiquity is notoriously difficult to determine. The written evidence comes for the most part from elite authors; visual evidence is available on vases, for example, but it stands in need of interpretation. Beginning with Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality in 1978, modern authors have tried to refine our conception of what was done in antiquity and how it was perceived. Some of Dover’s claims have been challenged or superseded: David Halperin, Martha Nussbaum, and James Davidson are three authors worth consulting for informed and thoughtful explorations of the issues at stake. On broader questions about ancient conceptions of sex, the anthology Before Sexuality (edited by Halperin, John Winkler, and Froma Zeitlin) is excellent.

One great difference between the time of Socrates and Plato and our own time is the change in attitudes toward male same-sex love and desire. An erotic relationship between two men has carried enough of a stigma in most of the modern world that making one of the two a teenager only intensified the social disapproval already attached to homosexuality. In ancient Greece, by contrast, and even when there were prohibitions in place about sexual practices, the desire for someone of the same sex does not seem to have been treated as problematic or strange.

But given that different social backdrop, what Socrates says in Plato’s dialogues still stands at some distance from what Yiannopoulos says. In the Symposium he reports a theory of love that he attributes to a woman named Diotima (and I’ll treat this as what Socrates is saying for our purposes). It clearly indicates that love, or eros, can begin as attraction between men. But Socrates does not talk about older and younger, as other participants in the Symposium’s conversation to (especially the characters Phaedrus and Pausanias). In fact he does not say much about the object of love at all; he’s interested in the one who feels desire and what that desire is like. One makes progress in erotic attraction by going from a single beautiful body to appreciating the beauty in all bodies, and from there to appreciating the beauty in all souls. And even that is not the end of the story, for the lover who pursues beauty then advances to loving the beauty in customs, then the beauty in every kind of knowledge, and finally beauty itself.

Is this beneficial? Without question. It’s the benefit of becoming philosophical. But the benefit goes to the one who feels the eros, while human objects of love quickly disappear from view altogether. Again: Socrates is speaking to people who assume that romantic, sexual relations are going to be paradigmatically those between older and younger male partners, but he does not talk about human relationships.

What Socrates says in another dialogue, the Phaedrus, is closer to what your question asks about. In the Phaedrus Socrates describes erotic pursuit in which one partner is an older man, the one who feels eros or desire, and the other is a younger man who feels something referred to as “counter-love,” a returning desire that is not quite as strong as the older partner’s emotion. (David Halperin’s article on anteros is particularly valuable.) The relationship between the two of them is much more clearly a love-relationship than anything Socrates advocates in the Symposium is, and the benefit goes to both. They both can become more philosophical under the influence of the love between them than either one would have become alone. And the younger partner learns how to be more like the kind of god whom his soul resembles; so there’s a particular pedagogy at work in the relationship.

But the very word “relationship” leads us to an important difference from Yiannopoulos’s claims that needs to be spelled out. In the Phaedrus the love Socrates describes has to be non-sexual. Those who give in to sexual desire quickly lose the benefits that love has to confer on human beings. Their relationships are bound to be erotic, and what we would call romantic, but Socrates does not allow them to turn into sexual relationships.

So what has changed from Socrates to our time? First of all there is Socrates’ faith that erotic attraction can work productively with philosophical enlightenment. People would be less likely to believe that any more.

Second is the change I already noted between a society that did not perceive homosexuality as peculiar and one that does.

Third, attitudes toward inequality in such relations have changed since antiquity. It was important to men in classical Greece to be the active partners in sexual relations. I have been discussing male-male relations, but when you look at male-female relationships, as between husbands and wives, they aren’t the breath of fresh air that Yiannopoulos might present his views as being. A man of thirty might take a bride of fifteen and immediately start trying to produce offspring. Whatever the reason is behind our cultural transformation to prohibiting this kind of marriage, the reason should be applauded. In many respects we value equality in love relations to the same degree that the ancient Greeks presumed and valued inequality. And if you value equality, your first reply to Socrates might be: How can we learn from erotic attachments and become more philosophical through those attachments when the partners in them have an equal role? Why does learning have to mean learning from a superior?

The Constitution may prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, but should common sense? After all, to give extreme examples, religions have advocated such things as cannibalism and human sacrifice. What stops people concealing any sort of immorality or false beliefs under the label of religion?

First a point about "discrimination." The Constitution prohibits government discrimination against religion, but it doesn't, for example, prohibit me from refusing to associate with known worshipers of the Great Spaghetti Monster. So we'll take it as read that government discrimination is what's at issue. With that in mind...

Cannibalism is illegal whether or not it's done under the banner of religion. So is human sacrifice. More generally: various kinds of conduct are either illegal or could be made illegal if that seemed to be the right thing to do. That means it's not clear what's gained by outlawing religions that supposedly advocate such things.

Maybe someone could say that advocating bad things should also be illegal, whether done in the name of religion or not. And depending on what we mean by "advocate," that's already true in some extreme cases. Conspiring to commit a crime is illegal. Inciting a riot is illegal. But the Constitution and American political mores give people very wide latitude in what they can advocate for --- even if it's something most of us find abhorrent. We make a sharp distinction between speech and conduct. Among the motivations for this is a healthy suspicion about government. Governments that get into the censorship business don't have a good track record of doing it wisely.

That's related to another point. "Facts" about what religions do or don't advocate are anything but simple. For example: in the Hebrew Bible (or, as Christians refer to it, the Old Testament) there are dicta that call for putting adulterers to death. (See Leviticus 20:10). To conclude from this that Judaism or Christianity advocates the death penalty for adultery would be just plain wrong. And to argue that these religions really do advocate such a thing because their scripture demands it would be a shockingly simple-minded way to think about the relationship between a religious traditions and its texts. Having the government decide what some religious tradition "really" advocates assumes (among many other things) that legislators or civil servants have some special insight into such things when in fact there's not the slightest reason to think they do. But even if some religious tradition unequivocally held that we should execute adulterers, we're back to the earlier point: our legal tradition (wisely, I'd say) maintains a pretty sharp distinction between what people say and what they do.

There's a further problem. Christianity, for example, is no one thing. Nor is Judaism nor Islam nor Buddhism nor... Within a religion tradition we often find sharp disagreements about what's acceptable and what's not. Does "Christianity" forbid same-sex marriage? It's a confused question. Within Christianity there are people who argue on both sides. Each side may think the other is confused about what authentic Christianity requires, but in any case, getting the government in the mix doesn't sound to me like a recipe for making things better.

Summing up, it's hard to see what good could come from having governments sort out which religions are acceptable. However, it's all too easy to see the sorts of things that could go wrong.

Do people have the right to rebel in a democracy? Is it just?

What makes this issue tricky is that the question seems to equivocate on the notions of "right" and "just."

Suppose (as seems likely) that rebelling against a democratic government involves conduct that the government in question has declared illegal. It seems clear that such rebellious conduct can't be "right" or "just" in the sense of of being legally permissible. It would, after all, threaten incoherence if a code of law has an 'out clause' permitting rebellion, akin to "here are the laws, but you can rebel against them without penalty." That would render that system of law toothless with respect to its authority.

So if there is right to rebel, the right can't be a legal or political one. It would have to be a moral or "natural" right. Indeed, this seems to be what political theorists such as Locke (and the framers of the U.S. Constitution he inspired) had in mind when they referenced a right to rebel against unjust governments. I won't take on the big project of defending the existence of such a right. But I hope you can see that your question has a complex answer: in a political or legal sense, no; in a moral sense, perhaps.

Hello! My question concerns the word, "theory". Can a theory be considered fact, and what gives one theory more credibility than another? I know that some theories are empirical, and can be tested scientifically for validity. So if a theory such as evolution seems a fact, why is it still called a theory? Should it not be fact? Obviously, some non-empirical theories, like String Theory, can't as yet be tested, and are questionable. But scientifically, do empirical theories get closer to truth, and can some be called true?

The word "theory" has a common meaning, which is something like "hypothesis" or "speculation." It also has a scientific meaning, which, close enough for our purposes, is "organized set of principles." When we call something a theory in that sense, we aren't saying anything at all about whether the principles are true or false.

Keep in mind that the word "theory" even gets used in mathematics---for example, when mathematicians talk about number theory (roughly, the study of the properties of whole numbers.) The word "theory" here isn't meant to suggest that the principles number theorists use are suspect.

The "theory/fact" confusion is unfortunate. Evolutionary theory is a theory in the scientist's sense: an organized collection of explanatory principles. As it turn out, those principles have been very successful tools for making sense of nature.

So why not just call these principles facts? We could, but theoretical principles tend to be abstract and general. We tend to use the word "fact" for the sorts of things that are closer to the ground---the kinds of things that people who disagree about abstract principles might see as evidence one way or another. But even if the theory's principles are beyond serious doubt, scientists will still call it a theory because given what they mean, that's what it is.

Is it worse to break a promise in order to avoid telling a lie, or to tell a lie in order to keep a promise?

There's no all-purpose answer.

Breaking some promises is worse than breaking others. Telling some lies is worse than telling others. But there's no good reason to think that every broken promise is worse than any lie or vice-versa. Telling some lies is worse than breaking some promises; breaking some promises is worse than telling some lies. If you really have to choose, the least bad choice will depend on the details.

Did Plato really believe in the plausibility of the "utopia" established in the Republic, or was his goal merely to formulate an argument?

The first thing I’ll say is important. Nothing in my answer will settle this question for everyone. This has long been one of the questions about Plato’s Republic that its readers debate the most heatedly, and it will likely that way.

As the question is stated, it has an ambiguity in it and a false dilemma. These are worth clearing up. The ambiguity appears in the phrase “the plausibility of the utopia.” To call a proposed form of government (whether utopian or not) “plausible” could mean 1) that it’s plausible to believe such a form of government could come into existence, or 2) that it’s plausible to believe such a form of government would work well if it did come into existence.

(While we are on that phrase, let me gently take issue with your word “utopia.” The Republic describes a utopia in Book 2: a peaceful, vegetarian farming community in which people eat roasted acorns and sleep on straw mats. That would be perfect, Socrates says, but Glaucon doesn’t want to hear another word about such an undesirable “city of pigs.” So they go on to explore the large developed economy and civil society that we think of as the Republic’s city. By the nature of the argument that gives rise to this city, it is something other than a utopia. It is the best city we can imagine instituting in the absence of utopia. That’s my view, anyway.)

Before returning to the ambiguity, let me identify what I consider the false dilemma in your question. Does Plato believe in the plausibility of the city, or “was his goal merely to formulate an argument?” He might be doing both. That is, he may well be formulating an argument precisely because he believes in the plausibility of the city. I say this not to criticize the question but to get clearer on what is at stake. For the question to pose a dilemma, you might mean: Was his goal merely to formulate an argument that he expected his readers not to believe, because he didn’t believe it either?

With that as the alternative, let’s go back to the ambiguous phrase. The Republic is repeatedly cautious about (1). Maybe a city like this would come about someday and maybe it wouldn’t. In Book 5 Socrates finally reveals what it would take to bring the city into existence, and the two options he proposes are both outlandish. Either people who rule cities today would have to become philosophers, or someone would have to grant philosophers the power that kings have. One way or other, you’d need someone with the expertise of a trained philosopher and the power of an existing absolute monarch. Rulers with great power tend not to be the types who set time aside to study philosophy deeply. But even the prospect of their doing so is more plausible than the thought of existing philosophers being granted strong executive powers sufficient for bringing the city into existence.

Along with that considerable practical problem, combining philosophers with rulers sounds as if it would violate the Republic’s rule that each person is best suited to performing a single task or job. Wouldn’t a “philosopher-king,” as we commonly all them, have two jobs at once? The Republic has an answer to this worry, but not everyone has accepted it. The answer is that ultimately the highest knowledge a ruler needs is the same as the highest knowledge a philosopher possesses. As I say, it would take some doing to convince everyone that this answer works.

So obstacles exist to the implementation of the philosophical city. But it could come into existence with a bit of luck, Socrates says, and that’s enough for his purposes. We understand how our own souls ought to function best if we study the constitution of a perfect city, so the city has value even if we can only contemplate it as an abstraction. But with luck it would cease to be an abstraction and acquire existence in this world.

That is my answer if you mean (1) by “the plausibility of the utopia.” A city like that is possible, but just barely. The nice thing it that it’s worth studying even if it never comes into existence.

If you mean (2) however, that Plato thinks the city would not work, hence would not be a good city, if it did come into existence; then my answer is more definite. The Republic makes clear, on my reading of it, that a city like that would be preferable to any existing city if it could come into existence. Many people disagree with my reading (although many also agree). When they do disagree, they point to difficulties in the theory Socrates sketches out. These point to Plato’s own thought, they say, that the city could not exist. But most of the difficulties in the theory prove to be specious, or quite minor. And as a bottom line, I would ask you to think historically. In Plato’s time, no one had proposed an overhaul of a constitution to produce a city run by philosophers in which the governing class and the standing army owned no property. Nothing like this was on the horizon. I don’t see why Plato would write an elaborate dialogue to indicate in his sly way the impossibility of an institution that, in his time, not one person had proposed as possible. Why would he set out to refute utopias in a culture that wasn’t writing utopias?

As I said, there are many more arguments to be made on both sides of this question. But before I could be convinced of the view that Plato is questioning utopias, I would have to be shown not just this or that difficulty in the Republic’s proposal of a good city, but also the advantage of reading the Republic as skeptical. What do we gain philosophically by setting up the description of a city when our point is to deny its possibility?

I'm in a sticky situation right now. Within a month I have to choose if I want to study law, philosophy or take a year off so I can find out what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to study law so I can hopefully make a lot of money and provide well for my hypothetically family. However, I don't know if that's worth it. Because I have to study a lot for 5 years then work hard until the day I'm too old to work, then I have to wait for the day I die. This seems meaningless to me right now, because I don't care about money at all. But I know I will need it to take care of a family. Anyway, I want to study philosophy so I can somehow change the problems humanity is facing. Somehow this makes more sense for me because I often ponder about everything wrong with this world, and why we don't do anything about it. Here is also why I don't care about money, because that's another factor that bring humanity down. And I don't think I can spend 8 hours everyday of my young and adult life, to work for money. That's not what I want to dedicate my life to at all. I would do anything if I had someone to love. But now I'm single and can't plan for that to happen. I can't just assume I will fall on love with someone that loves me too. Therefore, I kinda want to study philosophy and try to better understand what's wrong with us and how I can hopefully fix it. Or should I just take a year off and try to figure out what I should do for the rest of my life?

Many years ago I was in something like your position, (though my family was already real rather than merely possible), and I put roughly the same question to a very experienced and wise philosopher, who was also a friend. She was pretty elderly at the point, but her mind was still as sparkling as it was when she studied with Whitehead. She said to me, 'Well, Jonathan, reflect on the fact that it is better to be a third-rate philosopher than a first-rate anything else.' 'Of course! ' I said to myself. 'Why didn't I see that?' I became a third-rate philosopher, and I have been happy ever since.

Good morning, Please give me your perspective on the following topic Theological determinism and free will. Theological determinism seems to imply that I am not truly free if God is omnipotent and has infallible foreknowledge. After all, if God knows in advance that I will steal a car, it seems as though I am destined to do so, and that I am actually not responsible (God's fault, I am absolved of morally unacceptable behaviour). Some (Christian) Philosophers would probably argue to the contrary. They might say that God's foreknowledge does not imply that I am destined to act in a certain way, as God's foreknowledge only means that he knows what I will freely choose to do. Had I chosen to freely act in another way, his foreknowledge would have anticipated that as well. My own thought is that this argument merely implies that our Free-Will is an illusion. A simple thought experiment to support that is : If God decided to reveal some of his infallible foreknowledge to me, such as, for example, that I will buy a new red car tomorrow, then I would be free to act in a way that violates this foreknowledge; I may decide to buy a second-hand blue car instead. So Free-Will seems to imply that I can only be truly free if I could act in a way that violates God's infallible knowledge. There are of course many different permutations and views. Some answers resort to Modal Logic (about which I know nothing), suggesting that some sort of reconciliation between Infallible foreknowledge and Free-Will is possible after all. Your views will be greatly appreciated Kind Regards

Thank you for your excellent question and observations.

While I am inclined toward what is known as open theism (in accord with work by William Hasker) which essentially denies that divine omniscience includes truths about future free action (referred to sometimes as future, free contingents), I am (for the most part) agnostic about whether omniscience of the future would indeed show free will to be an illusion or provide evidence for fatalism. The reason why I am inclined to open theism is because I suspect that what you and I as free agents will do tomorrow is under-determined. It has not yet happened that tomorrow you will (freely) buy a red car. HOWEVER, if we adopted some form of 4 dimensionalism, according to which all times are equally real, and it is true that (say) in 2018 you are freely buying a red car (and so the event of your free action is the result of your free action at that time), then I suggest God's knowing that would not violate your free action.

Your point about what would happen if you were informed by an infallible, omniscient source about what you will do is very interesting! Arguably, your point rests on what seems right, that when we deliberate about what to do freely in the future, we do not already know what we will do. If I KNOW I will buy the car, it would be odd for me to deliberate on whether I should or should not make the purchase. This reasoning might, then, give us reason for thinking that God's revealing (assuming 4 dimensionalism, etc) to you now in 2017 what you will do in 2018 (freely?) would compromise your freedom or at least lead to paradox. But if we take the thought experiment to its natural conclusion, on this schema, all the factors would enter into what takes place in 2017 and 2018. So, what you do in 2018 might involve this: "It was revealed to me a year ago I would buy a red car. I want to defy this to back-up a claim I made on the blog Askphilosophers, but then again, I have a chance to buy that Italian racing car and, while it happens to be red, I will paint it blue just after the purchase." As you make the purchase, you hear a divine voice: "You raised a good point in Askphilosophers in 2017, but keep in mind I revealed to you that you would purchase a red car in 2018. I did not fill you in that you would paint it blue after the purchase."

I don't quite understand why people put so much time and effort into conversing with other people about their internal "belief systems." To me, the only thing that really matters is how other people behave: whatever they believe is secondary to how well or how poorly they act. If one person believes "treat others well because Jesus says so," while another person believes "treat others well because Krishna says so," wouldn't they then both agree with each other that the over-riding priority here is to treat others well? How much "should" it really matter WHO says so?


Your view reminds me a bit of what used to be called "Christian atheism". The idea was that to say for example that God is our heavenly Father is to adopt and proclaim a policy of behaviour towards other men, namely one of brotherhood. The problem with ruling out religious faith as such, "without works", so to speak, is that as a matter of fact for many if not most religious believers it is not the case that religion is just ethics and that "the only thing that really matters is how people behave". That may be what matters to you; then you are saying, 'Ethics matters to me; religious faith doesn't.' And if your view is stated impersonally, that the one ought to matter and the other not, we have to consider the fact that it might be the case that people came to be behave in a brotherly way, but without any affection or love. Would that be as good as people behaving well towards one another and loving their neighbours? And that is the heart of the matter. Behaviourism (your view) is I am afraid to say false.

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